One warm night in Grasse, Laila found herself being taken away to the roof of the apartment by the hand of Eligio. The streetlights were casting a golden hue on the cobbled roads below them, and in some night cafe in the distance, “Tous les Garçons et les Filles” played. They sat at a small rounded table covered in a red and white tablecloth, fit with a used ashtray, some empty glasses, and three worn white chairs. Eligio pulled out a chair for her, and Laila sat across from him. They drifted into conversation and in those few short hours, Laila saw an infinity before her. They talked about their college experiences, about their families, they joked about their own affairs, and communicated their loneliness between exhales and sighs. Eligio spoke with a captivating allure—charmingly monotonous, with an enigmatic air. He simultaneously bored her with his self-assuredness and aroused curiosity in her with his reservations, and it made her feel alive for the first time in what felt like an eternity. They absorbed the coolness of the midsummer night and soaked up one another’s stories and jokes. He knew that she saw him as an enigma, and he rather liked that she had not yet seen his desperation, though it was very much there. Both open and closed, they shared their lives and hid their feelings. But somehow, they both knew what the other was thinking.
After sitting on the roof for a few hours, they walked back into Eligio’s apartment together. Eligio loved her for the first time that night. He had always had love for her, but that night she showed him a new kind of tenderness that he knew would tear him apart once she was gone. He also knew that for people like them, holy things became unholy. They did not have the courage to give up their liberties for the sake of something sacred. He recalled how he had once told her that they were like travelers, never settling down and constantly on the move. For him, it was in search of home. For her, it was running away from it.
They lay with one another for hours until Eligio fell asleep. Laila sat up in the subtle half-dark and watched him sleep, loving at a distance, and eventually took to the Riviera’s streets. Though it was nearing the blue hour, the streets were warm and strangers were enticing one another on terraces and in alleyways. She could smell the faint smell of tobacco and of caffe corretto, and she breathed it all in deeply, knowing she would have to leave tomorrow.
Laila had been staying with Eligio for three months, since she first came to Grasse. She had picked Grasse because she hoped that it was somewhere that she could not be found. Somewhere in the cobblestones and red rooftops and bookshops and scents of the perfume capital, somewhere far from her family. She had always felt so contained by them. Even now at the age of 21, they had expected her to marry for a name and have children and all the other maternal things. She had, at some point, wanted to be a wife and a mother, but the golden cage, as she now called it, was more of a trap than a sanctity. She had watched her mother fall in love with the river that was her father, and he had washed away her cleverness and soaked her with a subdued sacrificial semblance. She was no longer a person with dreams but a sacrificial lamb, for the betterment of her husband and children. Laila shivered at the thought of becoming like her. She thought about Eligio and if she would ever let him make her his lamb. Perhaps it would be charming to be on the chopping block for someone and let them know that they have all of you. But what a waste that would be, she thought. It would be a tragedy to give up the freedom to roam for a man who would beat and cheat on her even though she knew she would love him with a beating heart that never quiets. She was her mother’s child. She mellowed out her mind and paced between her mother and Eligio and her dreams of being free from anyone or anything. She knew it was a futile fight. At some point, something would have to give.
She walked a while longer and took in the endless possibilities of the streets of Grasse. She relished in the fact that no one could tell her to come home and that she had no one to face for wandering the streets too much. It was a newfound freedom that she had never tasted before, and it was so sweet that she could never let it go. She wondered if she could love without letting it go, but she had never seen such a love, so how could that be? She would not be so lucky with stars like hers. She knew Eligio would never understand. He was a man with the privilege of going wherever he pleased. She could not even go home, let alone anywhere she pleased. They had developed a very intimate friendship in these last three months, and she had opened up to him in ways that she had with very few people. But he was still a man, and what would he know about a case like hers?
Walking back inside the apartment, she quietly crept into bed beside him and drifted away as the dawn fell in. They let the following morning escape them, and they awoke around midday. They went for breakfast in a quaint cafe, and they sat quietly as they sipped their correttos and devoured flaky pastries.
A short while later, Laila had to leave for the train station. She was not sure where she would be off to next, but it most certainly was not London. She had booked a stop in Budapest as a temporary fix until she figured out what she would do next. Perhaps she would become a writer in Crema, or maybe a sales assistant in Paris. She was not sure yet. Maybe she would become a mother. She was not sure yet. She wondered if she should stay in Grasse with Eligio, but since he did not propose the idea himself, she figured that would be mistaken belief. He enjoyed his time with her, and he loved the love of it all. It was a love that was unfamiliar yet known all too well. Love at a distance while being in the same bed. They understood one another and could not help but yearn, but she knew she wanted more, and he knew he could not move with a wanderer like her.
She wrote many letters to Eligio after she left, but he did not receive them until the autumn of that year. He read them but struggled to know what to write back. He thought it would be best to leave it and figured she would assume they had been lost in transit. She had loved him as always, in her unfamiliar way, but she knew that it was just a boy and girl fantasy.
He did not reply to her that year, nor in any year that followed. He regretted it for years to come because he realized that a cohesive understanding of fears and heartaches, as they had, was a rarity. She married in her thirtieth year and had four children who grew up in the coming of the millennium.
Safa Ali is an aspiring writer who combines academic rigor with a creative flare. Her distinctive voice in literature, nurtured by a profound love for poetry and art, resonates with readers seeking originality and depth.